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Taipei Calling

by Matt Fox   - Jan 23, 2015

 

The Morning

It was a sober 5:00 am. A freezing-Beijing-January 5:00 am. The 7:30 flight had seemed so reasonable when I was booking, but stood on the side of the empty street seeing taxis where there were none, I cursed my selection and the minuscule saving it had brought me. No amount was worth this. A cab finally came and a few grunts were enough to get the driver to understand where to go. I leaned back and pulled the top of my hood down over my eyes. Taiwan beckoned. It'd been a while since I’d been to a new country. And even if it was only a visa run, at least it would be warmer than here.

The trip had crept up with little fanfare and I’d done nothing in the way of research. I'd heard good things about the place but they were generally bracketed in comparison with life in Beijing. Beijing is an unforgiving juggernaut of a city. If you’re here long term and you’re not careful, it’s easy to get worn down and then crushed under the grind of the traffic, the jammed subways, the price hikes, the endless crowds and jostling and the fact you're often actively fighting to breathe. People snap; I’ve seen it happen. No discernible cause to pinpoint, just… Beijing. So when people tell me something’s better than Beijing, I’m not necessarily impressed.

The ride came to 88 kuai. Surely a good omen. I paid the driver and we joked about us both becoming rich. The good fortune lasted nearly four minutes. After taking the escalator down to wait for the shuttle train that ferries you from check in to departure and back, there was a longer wait than usual. Not much but it was noticeable. The platform’s LED sign suddenly flashed red. Out of order. The throng swung towards the doors on the opposite side. 10 minutes passed. 20. 30. The escalators kept adding new people to the crowd and the contained space was filling up. Irritation crackled. The repeated announcement explaining the destination of the non-existent shuttle in four languages started to sound like a key being scraped along your own car door. I aligned myself with the best angle of getting on the next train and poised cat-like, ready to spring the moment the doors opened. There would be no prisoners.

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A train arrived, but at the platform which was supposed to be out of order. The crowd pushed backwards. And so the first shall be last. Images of the recent Shanghai New Year’s Eve crush flashed before my eyes. I didn’t have much money on me, but the thought of what would happen if I did and started throwing it around didn’t bear thinking about. The escalators kept feeding. The cul-de-sac continued filling up. 50 minutes gone now. At no point was there any security or airport staff to reassure or explain what the hell was going on. Phones were pulled out and held aloft to document the imminent disaster. People were starting to be late for their planes. The uncertainty of how long it would take to get through security fashioned a cut throat edge to the wait. People had to get the next train. But then, so did I. There was a plane to catch and goddamn it, a story to write at the end of it.

In what shouldn’t be an anticlimax (but somehow feels like it was) the eventual shuttle ride turned out like a normal Beijing commute to work. The plane was delayed to accommodate whatever problem there was and everything went unnervingly smoothly. I ended up missing my connecting plane in Hong Kong because of the delay, but apparently that wasn’t an issue either and they simply put me on the next one. Stepping off the plane in Taipei I felt the icy grip of Beijing slide off my shoulders. Sunshine streamed through the airport windows. What was this strange land where the free wifi actually worked?

The bus to the city was decked out like a KTV party bus from the 1970s. Even the air vents overhead seemed to be smiling. Half an hour into the pleasant but uneventful ride you spot that building, rising up like a pagoda from some forgotten future. The 101 is on such a vast scale relative to the rest of the city that it should by rights be comical. Yet it isn’t. It’s totemic.
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 The Afternoon

Taiwan is all about the little things. I have no idea if they’re deliberate or not, but they seem to cumulatively engender a more positive outlook. I’m talking about the way the roads and pavements sparkle at night, the way unsightly objects have been painted with scenes of nature. I don’t know if that air vent in the bus was deliberately designed to look like a happy face, but the impression I got after only spending a couple of days in Taiwan, is that the people there are encouraged to respect each other and their environment. They’re not explicitly ordered to do anything (although a fine lurks behind every ’suggestion’), they’re just repeatedly reminded of the best way to behave for the benefit of society. And it seems to be working. I’m sure it could feel a tad Orwellian or just downright condescending if you lived there a while, but as a visitor coming from the Mainland, it was a breath of fresh air. Speaking of which, no actually, let’s not get started on that…

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If you were to ask someone which country has the greatest collection of traditional Chinese art in the world, they’d probably look at you as if you were mad. ‘Um, gee, I dunno. How about CHINA?’ Well, they’d be wrong. It’s Taiwan. The National Palace Museum holds the planet’s best collection of Chinese ceramics, jades, bronzes, paintings, and calligraphy. Straight up. To think you only see five percent of it on display in the museum at any one time is kind of dizzying. But the reason this stash is so huge and wondrous isn’t just because the KMT managed to grab all of China’s best toys when they fled for Taiwan in 1949. It’s because what they didn’t take was smashed up during the subsequent Cultural Revolution. The world doesn’t really need any more vases but it does make you wonder just how much China lost in that twisted decade. Anyway, having overloaded on culture, including being forced to reverently file past a piece of jade that resembled a cabbage, a release was needed. I half-recalled something from the guide book about a night market that sold snake blood. And that was that.

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The Evening


Our quest for blood took us to the seedy back streets near the Longshan Temple MRT. We didn’t know where we were going and the later it got, the seedier it got. Half-cut old guys with dead eyes ignored the advances of heavily-made up middle-aged women before stopping and going back to negotiate. We concluded we should stay on the main streets.

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If you spend much time in Asia you become used to seeing restaurants with live animals in cages outside: dogs, frogs, rabbits. This however was the first time I’d seen rats. Hundreds of them. Fluffy white, pink-eyed and squealing as they scrambled around the edges of their cages trying to escape.

‘I didn’t know they ate rats here.’ I said. 

Turns out they didn’t. The rats weren’t for the customers. The rats were for what lay curled in the cages opposite: two of the largest pythons you’ll see outside of a zoo. Gadzooks, we’d found what we were looking for! But the momentum was lost. On seeing the sad coils of broken serpent and hearing the frenzied screams of the rats that understood their predicament, the thirst for blood had waned.

‘Let’s just get a beer…’

 

 

 
 

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